An Indian of a different colour

Urbane 2

By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in February 2014

Several years ago in Toronto there used to be a quite clever and original Native theatre ensemble called The Turtle Gals. One of their first shows was a collective production called The Scrubbing Project. 

The title was a reference to an unfortunate practice that occasionally occurred decades ago in the Aboriginal community. In this society, dominated and controlled by white people, it was not unheard of for some Native people who felt life would be a lot simpler and less unfortunate if they could “scub” the darken hues from their own skin, and enter the less oppressive world of the dominant culture. Fashionably speaking, this makes sense, because as we know, white goes with anything.

It’s interesting how much things can change in a few short decades. It seems the reverse is now true. Presently, dark is in. I know from personal experience as somebody who flirted with a career in acting that for Native theatre and film, the darker you are, the better you’ll show up on stage and screen.

Us blue-eyed, light-brown haired guys didn’t have much of a chance.  And I have met a few Native women who won’t even consider having a child with anybody fair skinned. They want their babies brown and beautiful. Who can blame them? They can be quite adorable. Luckily my mother was of a different opinion.

Even the major populace of Ontario is getting in on the act. Our once descriptive and borderline racist term for all the expatriate Europeans, ‘pale skin’, is now actively becoming a thing of the past. Just recently, the Ontario government passed a law preventing teenagers from going to tanning salons. Evidently they were spending too much time in those contraptions and endangering their skin and, potentially, their lives. Great, now we’ll have to find a new term.

The reason I have broached this topic is the result of my recent trip to India. There, my whole perception of this skin tinted issue has been turned on its head.  And quite severely. India, which is awash in a broad hue of people, has its own fixation with whitening more than just their teeth. And it’s part of a national cosmetic industry. It seems there’s a lot of money in decolourizing.

During my sojourn, primarily along the eastern coast of the country – Gujarat, Kerala and Goa –  I couldn’t help but notice incentives and opportunities in the media and in the hotel room extoling the virtues of a snowy complexion.

Commercials litter the television channels, claiming their skin creams, with titles like ‘White Beauty’, will lighten your skin. One actress, during the 30-second commercial for such a product, was noticeably blanched by its end. Several of these products are by such well-known cosmetic companies like Nivea.

Men are not exempt. They are part of the ‘white is right’ movement too. One commercial promised its moisturizer would make your skin ‘ten shades lighter’. Another was called, simply, ‘Fair and Handsome’. What more needed to be said?

In some of the hotel bathrooms, right next to the complementary shampoo and conditioner, I found a face cream stating its virtues as a ‘flawless lightening agent.’ Meanwhile, I was trying to get a darker tan. So for both political and aesthetic reasons, I opted not to make use of the cream. Heaven forbid I come back from tropical India whiter than when I left Canada.

Things got worse. People in the spas here, when getting a facial, are routinely asked if they want bleaching with that. It also seems you can bleach your whole body here if you want, and fairly cheaply too. For a facial bleaching, practically pocket change. A measly thousand rupees. Your arms, a little more at 1,500. Now a full body bleaching might set you back a cool 2,500 rupees, which translates into an easily affordable $50 Canadian, approximately. It sort of answers the question “what do you get a man/woman who has everything?” A full body bleaching.

I am of mixed feelings when I write about things like this. It’s difficult and occasionally rude to comment negatively on other culture’s practices. As a First Nation’s person I know this and hate it when other people do that to us. Why should I care that some people in Japan have surgery on their eyelids to try and make them more North American? Some black people straighten their hair. We all do something of that nature, to some degree.

Several years ago I saw a small news item about a famous porn star who went to a plastic surgeon in L.A. for something called anal bleaching. It was for business reasons. I wonder if she could write that off on her taxes.

Luckily, I did not see that offered at the resort spa.